Exhibitionism on display

The Birth of the Museum
November 10, 1995

There has been recent argument over the ethics of a proposed Holocaust exhibition at the forthcoming Imperial War Museum; we are also witnessing a tug-of-war between the British Museum and the island of Lewes over small, carved chess pieces. The ethics, politics and nationalist rhetorics of the past in our possession are all addressed by Tony Bennett in this book, but, as Bennett notes, a "discourse of reform" has long accompanied museology. What The Birth of the Museum examines is a genealogy of the social function of the museum, and the technologies of power and knowledge; and what is found to be at stake is not simply class, commercialism or even history, but the self.

The nine essays here (mostly reprints) are divided into three sections - Theory, Politics, and Progress - but the same themes return in each. We are shown how the democratisation of private collections in the 18th and 19th centuries moved swiftly from a simple display of elite prestige and power to the birth of a "reformatory of manners", where the middle and lower classes could mingle and improve one another under careful management.

Objects were no longer displayed as curiosities, but as elements in narratives of progress and evolution, whose telos was "Man". Also on display were the visitors themselves: as the 1901 PanAmerican exhibition enjoined the citizens, "Please remember when you get inside the gates you are part of the show". Museums provided "both a prompt and an opportunity to civilise".

Bennett offers many ideas and analyses, and invokes a broad range of theorists from Michel Foucault to Antonio Gramsci, Jurgen Habermas to Pierre Bourdieu. Such an eclectic bunch do tend to quarrel, and the lack of any monographic conclusion to smooth the way does leave the book angular with tensions and the occasional contradiction.

The opening arguments on the "civic self" might also be more easily garnered from elsewhere. However, the theoretical heaviness is leavened with wit and the readings of specific sites are indispensable. Bennett shows how Beamish, like other folk museums, elides the ruptures and struggles of class relations into one harmonious, synchronic "past", playing on the visitor's association with the "folk" in order to undermine the politics of both. The changing representations of the Aborigines in Australian museums are likewise shown to function in the service of a white, bourgeois modernity that renders the past into one easily swallowed, politics-free history, available to all.

The dual process of reading the past and reading oneself in the museum are still present at this end of the century. Bennett analyses Melbourne's "Expo' 88" not only in terms of its representation of an optimistic modernity and celebration of progress, but also as a site for "civic calisthenics" where the worlds of the fair and the museum unite, and the flneur is taught to become the "high-tech consumer" of a bright, new future. The fair - whose changing relationship with the museum Bennett returns to throughout the book - takes centre-stage in the last essay, "A thousand and one troubles: Blackpool pleasure beach". This is Bennett's bravura performance, freed from the tyranny of footnotes, and it outreaches even Roland Barthes (the obvious comparison) in wit and energy. Sadly, it is also the only essay here to hint at the politics of praxis: to suggest how the rhetorics, representations and rides Bennett analyses so well might actually be subverted or transgressed.

John Arnold is a research post-graduate at the centre for medieval studies, University of York.

The Birth of the Museum: History, Theory, Politics

Author - Tony Bennett
ISBN - 0 415 05387 0 and 05388 9
Publisher - Routledge
Price - £40.00 and £14.99
Pages - 8

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